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November 24, 2008

1)  How to Improve Sidwell Friends School. The Obamas have chosen the elite Sidwell Friends School for their two daughters to attend, and if you think that is of little interest to Americans, you haven't been to The Huffington Post, where the story announcing the decision has 772 comments, and counting.

Predictably, there are arguments about whether President-elect Obama should have chosen a public school instead, with the sensible rejoinder about security and private decisions. I find these arguments to be beside the point. The Obamas enjoy the same freedom as everyone else, to choose a school within the limits of their ability to pay.

A better question is why the Obamas would choose Sidwell Friends, a school sorely lacking in many of the elements we are told are required for educational excellence. It would be a shame if the Obama kids were to miss out on all these benefits, so we humbly submit these additions and subtractions to make Sidwell Friends the type of school the experts want all schools to become:

* Add a unionized workforce and a collective bargaining agreement. NEA asserts "that the attainment and exercise of collective bargaining rights are essential to the promotion of education employee and student needs in society." How can the Obama kids have their education needs filled without agency fee, release time, grievances, binding arbitration and strikes?

* Add geographic enrollment boundaries. The Obamas will reside 3.5 miles from one Sidwell campus and 8 miles from the other, located in the state of Maryland. What's next, flying in the next generation of Kennedy kids via helicopter from Massachusetts? Limit enrollment to those in the immediate neighborhood.

* Subtract weak teacher benefits. According to the Sidwell web site, teachers pay 10-40% of their health insurance premiums, pay into a defined contribution retirement plan, and receive only two personal days a year.

* Add diversity. The Obama kids will become part of the 39% of Sidwell students who are racial/ethnic minorities. But the DC Public Schools are 95% racial/ethnic minorities. How can the Obama children be denied so much of the rich cultural mix our nation's capital provides?

* Subtract religion. The Quaker tradition is part of daily life at Sidwell Friends, including weekly worship meetings for all students, Quaker or not. This isn't very inclusive of the Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Wiccans and animists among the student body. Religious beliefs should only be studied from an academic standpoint and never practiced within a school's walls.

* Add to the curriculum. Grades PreK-4 emphasize things like phonics, handwriting, vocabulary, comprehension, grammar, fractions, algorithms, geometry, and American history. Upper grades are heavy with English literature, advanced math, history, science, foreign languages and the arts. There isn't much "getting information from television, film, Internet, or videos" or "Represent multiplication as repeated addition" for lower grades, or "Identify the countries, such as Italy, Poland, China, Korea, and Japan, where large numbers of people left to move to the United States at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries" for upper grades. We don't want to saddle a 21st century President with an 18th century curriculum.

Even without these changes, we can expect the Obama kids to do well in school, since the level of parental education is a positive influence on student achievement, even if it might lead to inferior choices in where those students go to school.

2)  Who's the Boss? The U.S. military and the U.S. school system are both very large-scale, labor-intensive public enterprises. Their missions are very different, of course, but they are also very different structurally. The military relies on a rank system and a strict chain-of-command that reaches from the newest recruit to the President of the United States. The public school system, on the contrary, has such a diffused authority and responsibility structure it is more difficult than ever to determine who is in charge and to whom the system is accountable.

Several stories last week illustrated the point:

* A Rhode Island superior court judge ruled as unenforceable a 20-year-old provision in a teacher contract. The Exeter-West Greenwich Education Association filed a grievance over the district's "failure to seek the teacher union's approval before creating a new department of fine arts." An abitrator agreed, prompting the district to take the case to court. The judge decided the provision was an "unlawful delegation" of the district's duties and responsibilities.

* The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that parents have no standing to force school districts to comply with the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. Although Pontiac v. Spellings is still in litigation and things may change, the National Education Association has such standing.

* The California Teachers Association joined a lawsuit to overturn the state's new policy to require students to be tested in algebra by the end of 8th grade starting in 2011.

* The Sacramento City Unified School District has 12 charter schools, but you would be hard-pressed to know that because the district doesn't provide information to parents about the schools, doesn't list them on the district web site, and doesn't provide them with access to open houses for recruiting purposes.

3)  Signs of the Apocalypse. For the first time ever, unionized postal employees may be laid off.

4)  Last Week's Intercepts. EIA's blog, Intercepts, covered these topics from November 17-24:

* Won't Get Fooled Again. I know that the hypnotized never lie.

* The Pumpkin Farm. Sometimes you do get what you pay for.

* Serendipity. Qualification to become an elected official? Worse than average knowledge of civics.

* The Evil That Men Do Lives After Them. A tribute to Wayne Johnson.

5)  Quotes of the Week. "Why not pay teachers more for taking on additional responsibilities? Why not pay teachers more for working in hard-to-staff schools or in subjects with shortages of qualified teachers? Why not pay teachers more for working with their fellow teachers for schoolwide excellence?" AFT President Randi Weingarten at the National Press Club on November 17.

"The Association opposes providing additional compensation to attract and/or retain education employees in hard-to-recruit positions."

"The Association further believes that performance pay schedules, such as merit pay or any other system of compensation based on an evaluation of an education employee's performance, are inappropriate."

"The National Education Association is opposed to the use of merit pay or performance pay compensation systems."

"Any additional compensation beyond a single salary schedule must not be based on education employee evaluation, student performance, or attendance."

Quotes from NEA Resolutions F-9 and F-10.

That's why not.


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